‘We are ready for Kim’: Pentagon says N. Korean nuclear warhead can reach US

The chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has warned that North Korea now has sufficient nuclear capacity to attack the US mainland, but claims American air defenses would shoot down any incoming warhead.

“We assess that they have the capability to reach the homeland with a nuclear weapon from a rocket,” Admiral Bill Gortney, the head of NORAD, told an audience during a public event organized by Atlantic Council, a pro-NATO think-tank.

Last month, North Korea’s state news outlets carried a statement saying the country could attack the US “at any time” with a nuclear arsenal that is “improving in quantity and quality.”

U.N. Navy Rear Admiral Bill Gortney © Hamad I Mohammed

Gortney noted that the opacity of North Korea’s regime makes it difficult to sort genuine claims from posturing. Pyongyang is ramping up for the 70th anniversary of its ruling party on Saturday, and in the past such occasions have been marked by displays of military might from the leadership.

But the 60 year-old admiral said that regardless of whether the threats were credible or not, they were not likely to endanger ordinary Americans.

“We’re ready for him [Kim Jong-un], and we’re ready 24 hours a day if he should be dumb enough to shoot something at us,” said Gortney. “I’m pretty confident that we’re going to knock down the numbers that are going to be shot.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un © KCNA

He said NORAD was upgrading its nuclear capacity with improved radar and sensors and has recently argued that, in the future, hostile warheads should be destroyed before they have left their silos, rather than once they have been launched.

Gortney, who cut his teeth as a fighter pilot, also called on Congress to approve next year’s military expenditure budget or risk jeopardizing the country’s missile defense.

The speech came the same day as the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security released a report claiming that Pyongyang has sufficient fissile material for 22 nuclear weapons, namely 34 kilograms of plutonium and 240 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium.

Previous worries about Korea’s nuclear capacity have been allayed by its inability to miniaturize and deliver a nuclear payload. However, the US Missile Defense Agency claimed in March that Kim would be able to launch ballistic rockets powerful enough to reach the US by the end of this year.

Yukiya Amano, the Director-General  IAEA, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, said this week that the organization had noticed increased activity at North Korea’s primary nuclear site in Yongbyon, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported. He also urged the authoritarian country to comply with restrictions imposed by the international community.

North Korea, whose belligerence has waxed and waned over the past decade, has simultaneously claimed its nuclear program is peaceful in nature while engaging in bellicose rhetoric, such as that published this week in an essay signed by Kim, in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, which stated that the country “should produce more powerful cutting-edge arms of our kind and tirelessly strengthen self-defense nuclear deterrence while rigorously making war-fighting preparations involving the entire population.”